Divided Democratic Party Under Biden Requires Compromise, Says Progressive Rep. Khanna

Nov 12, 2020
Originally published on November 18, 2020 11:49 pm

When Joe Biden won the Democratic primary months ago, many progressives got in line behind him with a common goal: beat President Trump.

Now that President-elect Biden, a moderate Democrat, has signaled that he will govern as such, Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, sees room for their party to compromise.

"Joe Biden showed how to find common ground, as did Bernie Sanders — that we can speak about budgeting our values," Khanna, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition on Thursday.

There has been debate recently within the Democratic Party over whether progressive positions cost Democrats seats in the House. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., told The New York Times recently that his constituents "are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking."

Khanna says that while Biden did not voice support for such actions, progressive voices helped galvanize a critical base to help win him the presidency.

"My view is that the Black Lives Matter movement was very, very helpful," he said. "They helped organize record turnouts in places like Milwaukee and Atlanta and Philadelphia and Detroit. And the language of activism helped the party, but it doesn't have to be the language that the party itself adopts."

Still, Khanna is adamant that he and the party's progressive wing will work with the incoming Biden administration to push for their top concerns, including "a bold clean energy plan" and "Medicare for All."

Interview Highlights

Is it possible that the language of activism works in some parts of the country and not in others? And if that's the case, what do you do about that — how do you find the common ground?

I think Joe Biden showed how to find common ground, as did Bernie Sanders. We can speak about budgeting our values. In other words, we can make it clear that we support law enforcement. We recognize how essential their role is in a community, but that we also have to budget for mental health services, for social services, and community budgets need to reflect the diversity of needs of a community. And I think that if we are constructive in how we message it, we can appeal to this sentiment of the Black Lives Matter movement while explaining principles in matters of common sense.

What are you going to be looking for to see how open to progressive ideas President-elect Biden will be?

Well, President-elect Biden is off to a great start with his appointment of Ron Klain [as White House chief of staff]. I know Ron Klain very well. He has reached out many times to progressives, come to the Hill, indicated a willingness to work with us. So I think the personnel is going to matter a lot.

And then, of course, the issues of his agenda. What are we going to start with in terms of the size of our stimulus and in terms of the size of our infrastructure program and other priorities?

Biden says he doesn't want Medicare for All, likes the idea of Obamacare expansion, likes a public option, thinks the eligibility age for Medicare should be 60, not 65. As far as you are concerned, is that enough?

Well, of course, I support Medicare for All. I think that that is the best system economically and also will cover everyone while lowering the premiums by not having premiums and copays. But I think a good starting point is to deliver on what the task forces came up with. So, let's at least extend Medicare to 60. Let's make sure we at least get a public option. And I think what progressives will be looking for is to implement, at the very least, the task forces that President-elect Biden ran on.

NPR's Avery Keatley and Steve Mullis produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some months back, when it became clear that Joe Biden had won the Democratic primary, many progressives got in line behind him. They had a common goal - beat President Trump. But Biden is a moderate Democrat who is suggesting that he will govern as a moderate. So what does that mean now for progressives?

Representative Ro Khanna of California is the vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Sir, thanks for being with us.

RO KHANNA: Good morning.

KING: So there's a big debate in the Democratic Party. Did progressive positions like defund the police lose you seats in the House? Now, Democrat Conor Lamb was asked by The New York Times about it, and he said something interesting. He said, quote, "I'm giving you an honest account of what I'm hearing from my own constituents, which is that they are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking."

What's going on here?

KHANNA: This was never the message of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders spoke out against defunding the police. Joe Biden did. Joe Biden won overwhelmingly. Now, my view is that the Black Lives Matter movement was very, very helpful. They helped organize record turnouts in places like Milwaukee and Atlanta and Philadelphia, in Detroit. And the language of activism, it helped the party, but it doesn't have to be the language that the party itself adopts.

KING: OK. Is it possible that the language of activism works in some parts of the country and not in others? And if that's the case, what do you do about that? How do you find the common ground?

KHANNA: Well, I think Joe Biden showed how to find common ground, as did Bernie Sanders. We can speak about budgeting our values. In other words, we can make it clear that we support law enforcement. We recognize how essential their role is in a community - but that we also have to budget for mental health services, for social services, and community budgets need to reflect the diversity of needs of a community. And I think that if we are constructive in how we message it, we can appeal to this sentiment of the Black Lives Matter movement while explaining principles and matters of common sense.

KING: OK - so some real-world compromises there. Let's focus on the Biden administration. What are you going to be looking for to see how open to progressive ideas President-elect Biden will be?

KHANNA: Well, President-elect Biden is off to a great start with his appointment of Ron Klain. I know Ron Klain very well. He has reached out many times to progressives, come to the Hill, indicated a willingness to work with us. So I think that the personnel is going to matter a lot. And then, of course, the issues of his agenda - what are we going to start with in terms of the size of our stimulus and in terms of the size of our infrastructure program and other priorities?

KING: One of the big policy issues which - will be health care, which is often the cleave, right? Biden says he doesn't want "Medicare for All," likes the idea of Obamacare expansion, likes a public option, thinks the eligibility age for Medicare should be 60, not 65. As far as you are concerned, is that enough?

KHANNA: Well, of course, I support Medicare for All. I think that that is the best system economically and also will cover everyone while lowering the premiums by not having premiums and co-pays. But I think a good starting point is to deliver on what the task forces came up with. So let's at least extend Medicare to 60. Let's make sure we at least get a public option. And I think what progressives will be looking for is to implement, at the very least, the task forces that President-elect Biden ran on.

KING: And then will you continue to push him to consider Medicare for All?

KHANNA: Yes, absolutely. The - Daniel Patrick Moynihan held hearings in the 1990s on Clinton's health care policies. And at the end of all of the hearings, he turned to Lawrence O'Donnell, who was his staff director - now on NBC, but the staff director at the time - and he said, I guess the only way out of this mess is to extend Medicare. It's the simplest way to do it, it's the most efficient way to do it, and it is what will improve health care outcomes for Americans without charging them for premiums and co-pays. So I believe that is the rationally best policy. But progressives are willing to work with the administration to make progress.

KING: Another big area of concern for progressives - climate change. Biden has a different climate change plan than the Green New Deal, although they do share some similarities. Where do you think progressives are going to want to push him when it comes to climate change?

KHANNA: Again, I think we should look at the task forces, which he set up in conjunction with Sanders supporters, and ask for a bold, clean energy plan that he can do through executive order, where we have a real commitment to renewables, where we have a real investment in battery storage, where we have a real investment in retrofitting.

KING: Congressman Ro Khanna of California, thanks so much for taking the time this morning. We appreciate it.

KHANNA: Thank you very much - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.